Reflections on Studying the Past – Meddyliau ar Astudio’r Gorffennol

Christmas 1935 was a happier-than-usual one in Ebbw Vale. The steel firm of Richard Thomas & Company had just taken over the previously dormant premises of the Ebbw Vale Steel, Iron and Coal Company in the town, re-starting production and bringing hope of an end to the unemployment and poverty of the depression years. One of the first acts of the new firm was to distribute 18,000 cans of American beer as a Christmas gift to its employees across its various industrial sites. It was a festive gesture which workers, particularly those at their newly acquired Ebbw Vale works, no doubt welcomed. But it was also a marketing ploy.

As the UK’s leading tinplate manufacturer, Richard Thomas & Company had a vested interest in broadening consumer demand for canned products. The American Can Company, who supplied the festive freebies, was a major producer of canned beer, selling some 30 million cans a month in the US by the mid-1930s. They had recently purchased 10,000 boxes of tinplate from the UK firm of Richard Thomas & Company and, for both firms, there were large potential profits to be made if consumers in Britain, as well as the United States, could be persuaded to drink beer from cans, not bottles. But British beer drinkers were not easily convinced.

Although alcohol consumption in Britain had fallen during the inter-war years, beer was still a favourite of working men and – increasingly – of women. For some of these drinkers, the rituals around how beer was served and consumed were as important as the drink itself. Despite, the fact that tin cans were already widely used as food containers, the extension of this practice to beer did not go uncontested. Beer had always been sold in bottles and served poured into a glass or pewter mug. We don’t know what the response was among recipients of the canned American beer in Ebbw Vale, but some British drinkers made it clear that they were not willing to tolerate canned beer.

In January 1936, a correspondent signing themselves ‘Quaffer’, wrote to The Financial Times that:

“On aesthetic grounds, there can be no possible doubt as to the superiority of the bottle. Frankly the idea of beer coming into contact with any metal other than pewter appals me. Imagine asking for a pint in a can and being handed something outwardly indistinguishable from condensed milk.’”

One London-based reader replied and sought to reassure beer connoisseurs like ‘Quaffer’, with the suggestion that tin cans were really not so far removed from the traditional pewter mug. They pointed out that ‘pewter contains 92-96 per cent tin’ and therefore a tin can ‘should appeal to him if he likes drinking beer … from a pewter mug.’ Resistance to the can, the respondent suggested, was a product simply of prejudice which should not be allowed to get in the way of the ‘great future’ for canned beer in Britain.

But ‘Quaffer’ had practical concerns too. The can manufacturers of the 1930s had not yet hit upon the idea of the ring-pull opening mechanism. Tinned foods required tin-openers to be used, and the prospect of needing a similar utensil to open a beer can was not appealing. Drinkers would have to carry a can opener with them everywhere, ‘Quaffer’ predicted, perhaps hanging from their watch chain. And there were safety hazards too if drinkers attempted to consume their beer directly from a jaggedly-opened can, resulting in ‘an epidemic of cut lips’ among the working classes. He concluded: ‘Let America have her beer in cans … but let us stick to the bottle.’

These public discussions give us an insight into the very personal ways in which people sometimes responded to innovation. Changes to the design or packaging of everyday products had a direct impact on the consumer experience, affecting the look and feel of an item as well as its familiarity and appeal. So while the idea of selling beer in tin cans rather than in bottles was, for a firm manufacturing tinplate, a great commercial opportunity; for some British drinkers, it came as an unwelcome threat into their relationship with their favourite drink. But Richard Thomas & Company put up a stiff defence of the beer can. Early in January 1936, J. D. Firth wrote on behalf of the company to the Financial Times, pointing out the advantages of cans over bottles in terms of portability and hygiene: ‘On the score of taste, freedom from risk of infection and convenience, the can has it over the bottle every time.’

This Christmas we can choose to drink our favourite tipple from a bottle or a can. The fact that both forms of packaging for beer and lager have prevailed, perhaps serves to show that each type of container has its own merits. Fans of independently-brewed craft beers would probably baulk at the idea of drinking their favourite ale direct from a can; while for others the appeal of a cold can of beer, straight from the fridge, fizzing from the ring-pull, is one of life’s joys. The great diversity of human preference means there’s a place for both. Cheers and Happy Christmas!

By Professor Louise Miskell

This is an extended version of a piece which was originally published as a Twitter thread on my Social Worlds of Steel research project account, @Steelworlds

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